The Smithsonian’s in a pickle: Historic exhibits lost forever

Written by Cissie Treleaven, CNN

Turn back the calendar to the 1930s and there’s a high-quality photograph in your home that sparked a friendship, perhaps even an unexpected attraction. Attracting so much attention, it could well be a story from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art .

For the first time since the 1930s, America’s Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art may be lost forever, with the museum experiencing a funding shortfall and facing a $65 million repair bill.

Now, the Smithsonian has teamed up with none other than Philippe de Montebello , head of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, to create “There’s no place like home,” a multimedia response to the crisis.

The installation will be installed at all locations of the Archives until mid-2020. Designed by New York-based studio Studio Gang, “There’s no place like home” will offer custom artifacts from the archives, plus a portrait of its founders.

“It’s really about emphasizing that the collection is more than just those artifacts,” director of the Archives Jef Tom, says. “Those are interesting but only part of it.”

One such presentation will pay tribute to curator Archie Smith, who died in 2009, and the time he spent with president Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Photographs from the archives will also be displayed, together with the original handwritten directive of President Roosevelt’s 1941 speech on the environment. To explain their significance, Tom says, “we’ll introduce those artifacts with the museum itself, with a great story behind it.”

To further emphasize the idea of heritage, there will be a collaboration with the National Archives’ National Museum of Natural History , the National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of Women in the Arts. “The museums are all sort of cousins to the Archives; in terms of curating stories, interacting with communities, they bring their stories to the Archives,” Tom says.

Additionally, the institution will look at saving forgotten material — such as recent missing photo negatives — from the archives, he adds.

While one of the great challenges to the Institution is the digitization of materials, and the Archives is launching a request for proposals later this year to digitize the entire collection, Tom says: “We have little pieces of digital data that are on specific PDFs that we use, or actually communicate through Word docs that we use.”

“These materials are really valuable for staff because they’re taking our data, knowing it’s digital,” he says. “We are constantly on the need to digitize, but when we’re dealing with the Archives we think digitization takes time and is a reality for really only a handful of our collections.”

In response to the Archives’ funding shortfall, Tom admits: “It’s very challenging.” The institution is undertaking an external review to figure out how best to address the growing need for staff, as well as the lack of funding.

“I don’t think that these nonprofits should be expected to be self-funding,” he says. “We’re expected to do it, we’re supposed to raise it, you don’t have to pay us like a commercial enterprise.”

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